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Martha Gellhorn was one of the most ambitious and influential American journalists of the 20th century. The war correspondent spent six decades in the field, writing vividly about the beaches of Normandy, the jungles of Vietnam and practically every other battle-ravaged region on the planet. Perhaps one day she’ll get the solo biopic treatment she deserves.
Until then, we have Hemingway & Gellhorn. Philip Kaufman’s sweeping new HBO melodrama argues that the most interesting years of the woman’s life were the five she spent married to Ernest Hemingway. Though told from the trailblazing reporter’s perspective, the film attributes her inspiration to association. It was Hemingway, apparently, who helped this insecure “war tourist” find her voice.
Kaufman’s movie offers a familiar mythic-macho take on its male subject: Hemingway as lover and fighter, genius and drunkard. He’s played, in a shrewd casting choice, by Clive Owen, whose own brand of brainy masculinity has never seemed far removed from the brio and bluster we associate with the great author. Whether confronting a literary critic who’s questioned his manhood or challenging a lecherous Soviet general to Russian roulette, Owen rips into the role with scenery-chewing conviction.
He’s well-matched by Nicole Kidman, who sheds most of her movie-star glamour to portray the young Gellhorn. It’s a mannered performance—Kidman inflates the smallest gestures, such as drags on a cigarette, into showy displays of idiosyncratic character. Then again, when acting against Owen’s outsize celebrity wordsmith, going big is pretty much your only option.
The movie begins in the ’90s, with Kidman waxing nostalgic from behind convincing old-lady makeup, before rewinding to the lovers’ flirtatious first encounter in a Florida bar, circa 1936. They next meet in Spain; Gellhorn’s there to cover the civil war for Collier’s, while Hemingway has hitched a ride with a group of impassioned political filmmakers. Kaufman stages this seminal episode in both writers’ careers as the first act of a battle-of-the-sexes farce—The African Queen with more civilian casualties. Later, when Gellhorn complains about feeling unqualified to write about the war, Hemingway barks tough-love aphorisms: “Get in the ring and start throwing punches for what you believe in.”
Can this really be the work of the same filmmaker who made such ravishing romances as Henry & June and The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Kaufman’s most distinctive touch is also his most garish: The “action” scenes, in which the titular duo duck and weave their way through various global conflicts, have been staged as scratchy snippets of phony newsreel. (The gimmick hits its nadir when Kidman wanders into some authentic Holocaust-atrocity footage.) A quick cut from a screaming child to Hemingway enjoying the perks of superstardom suggests Kaufman may be after a sly critique of the iconic artist, who achieved fame and fortune writing about the victims of war. Such moments feel like empty gestures when stacked up against a barrage of biopic clichés (For Whom the Bell Tolls finds its title!) and cutesy cameos (look: Orson Welles!).
The real Hemingway, outspoken son of a bitch that he supposedly was, would probably have some choice words for such a bloated and romantic treatment of his story. But it’s Gellhorn who gets the short end of the deal. The author spent a lifetime trying to escape the shadow of her famous ex-husband. “I do not see myself as a footnote to someone else’s life,” Kidman says in the movie’s final minutes. The preceding two and a half hours beg to differ.
Hemingway & Gellhorn airs on HBO Monday 28 and arrives on demand the following day.